For a conversation so self-evidently silly, last weekend’s food-fight between The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank and The Huffington Post’s Nico Pitney on CNN’s “Reliable Source” sure has excited quite a few people. *
Maybe it’s because according to Pitney, Milbank called him a “dick” after the cameras were turned off. We would not be surprised. But alleged dickishness notwithstanding, the argument was not nearly as trivial as it might initially appear. In fact, it revealed some important aspects of a battle underway to define the manner in which different members of the media define their jobs as the protectors and defenders of American democracy.
It is no secret that the elite, insider Washington media (herein “MSM”) is under siege on a number of fronts—political, moral, intellectual, and certainly financial. All of the challenges threaten the self-image—and some would say self-importance—of these journalists and the most common response has been one of defensiveness. They have a way of doing things around here, thank you very much, and if you don’t like it, it’s probably because you, in your ignorance, ideological obsessiveness, or simple cluelessness, just don’t get it. Their response, believe it or not, is not always wrong—particularly when compared to say, the quality of discourse on cable TV these days, and much of what can be found in the “comments” sections of most websites.
This defensiveness was in evidence all across the MSM when President Barack Obama, in an extremely unusual move during his most recent press conference, not only called on an upstart website for his second question, but signaled that the exchange had been coordinated in advance. Pitney, Washington editor of The Huffington Post, had been liveblogging the uprising in Iran since the election. The White House told Pitney that the president might call on him with regard to his reporting on Iran. Pitney, who had solicited questions from Iranian readers, came up with a tough one regarding the president’s willingness to toughen his stand against the regime. You can both read the question and Obama’s response here.
Many members of the MSM evinced shock on multiple levels. They were offended on the one hand by Obama’s turning to Huffington Post, particularly for the second question of the conference, and even more by the Huffington Post’s willingness to cooperate with the White House in the staging of the event and agreeing to the topic in advance.
But The New York Times (whose White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, famously asked Obama what “enchanted him the most” about serving as president) complained that the Obama-Pitney exchange was staged. On Sunday Obama adviser David Gregory demanded of David Axelrod, “If President Bush had done that, don’t you think Democrats would have said that’s outrageous?” When it came time for “Reliable Sources,” Milbank, positively dripping with contempt for his fellow panelist, termed the Pitney-Obama exchange “collusion.”
Of course Bush did this many times. For two years the Bush White House gave James Guckert, writing for Talon News under the pseudonym of “Jeff Gannon,” access to the press room. Guckert, a former gay prostitute and delegate to the Republican National Convention in 2000, with no journalistic background to speak of, had established Talon News in 2003, worried that his actual employer, GOPUSA, might give the appearance of a “built-in bias.”
The president called on Guckert regularly and he would lob softball questions that highlighted White House talking points. The National Press Club invited Gannon to be an honored guest on a panel on blogging and journalistic credibility. Howard Kurtz, who draws a paycheck both from CNN and The Post, while reporting on both, blamed the scandal on “these liberal bloggers, [who] have started investigating his personal life in an effort to discredit him.”
It continued—slightly less egregiously but no less obviously—after Guckert was revealed in the manner of the Bush relationship to Fox News. As the scrupulously fair-minded MSM reporter Ron Brownstein notes, "Through its language, its news decisions, and its hosts—[Fox] generally functions more like a cog in the Republican message machine than as a conventional news organization that attempts to abide, however imperfectly, by the traditional standards of (yes) fairness and balance."
Dana Milbank did not, insofar as our research could discover, ever criticize any of these Bush events. In fact, he engaged in some rather significant ones on his own. For instance, when Bush falsely claimed, following the war, “Did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is: absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in,” even a extremely sympathetic reporter like Howard Kurtz could not help but admit that the president’s assertion enjoyed “no relation to reality,” as the inspectors had been in Iraq for months before the invasion, making what they insisted was considerable progress in mapping out the weapons Hussein did or did not have.
But when Kurtz asked his frequent “Reliable Sources” guest Dana Milbank about Bush’s false assertion in explaining why he took the country to war in Iraq, Milbank failed to see what the big deal was. Speaking for the collective as he understood it, he answered: “I think what people basically decided was this is just the president being the president. Occasionally he plays the wrong track and something comes out quite wrong. He is under a great deal of pressure.”
To be fair, Milbank has a soft side, too. During the 2000 election he interviewed Al Gore’s daughters, Karenna and Kristin, about their resemblance to Marcia and Jan in ”The Brady Bunch.” Given a chance to question Barack Obama during the campaign, he thought it wise to badger him about how he looked in a bathing suit. Milbank went on to relate Obama’s surge in popularity to “a photo [that] appeared in People magazine of him in a bathing suit as part of a ‘Beach Babes’ spread.”
(And while he demonstrates considerable charity toward say, former President Bush, Milbank reserves his harsh judgment—according to a review in The New York Times of his book, HOMO POLITICUS: The Strange and Barbaric Tribes of the Beltway for those reporters he likes to call “the little people.”
For instance, reviewer Tara McKelvey notes that the 23-year-old ex-mistress of former Congressman Don Sherwood comes in for some harsh treatment, as do people with offensive physical traits, [Mike DeWine was “a diminutive Republican senator from Ohio who brought to mind the film ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids’”]. McKelvey also notes that the author is “quick to point out things that seem déclassé: ‘Save the Children novelty ties,’ security badges worn ‘after work at bars’ and fancy jackets (‘even the lowest White House aide, earning $20,000 a year, wears a sharp business suit’).” The yucks never stop coming.)
It would be wonderful to live in a world where the MSM lived up to its own ideals about itself; where reporters not only asked tough questions of powerful people, including the president and his advisers, but did the investigative work necessary when they were actually telling the truth in their responses.
Alas, with a few admirable exceptions, that is not the world we live in. Instead, based on what we can conclude about Mr. Milbank’s professional values and those of the professionals he represents is the following: Aside from the fact that he doesn’t like funny-looking people and cares deeply about the physique of potential presidents and their children, he really doesn’t like it when a website practices “collusion” with the White House on the topic of a televised press question conference—even if the president has no idea of what the question will turn out to be, and even if it ends up being so tough a question that the president ends up ducking it.
On the other hand, when presidents—at least Republican presidents—lie to the country about why we went to war, that’s pretty cool. Nor does he much get terribly upset when GOP operatives pretend to be reporters and ask questions about make-believe issues designed to make the boss look good. (In another powerful symbol of MSM’s actual attitude toward the powerful people it covers, Milbank’s newspaper, The Washington Post, is now, according to Politico, offering lobbyists and association executives off-the-record, nonconfrontational access to “those powerful few”—Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and the paper’s own reporters and editors—for a mere upfront payment ranging from $25,000 to $250,000.
As for the values represented by Pitney, The Huffington Post, and the rest of the liberal blogosphere, well, we could certainly point to valid criticisms of them as well—and perhaps we will in another column. But of all of HuffPo’s faults, we would have to argue that putting the president on the spot with a tough question generated by an Iranian who would like to know where the president stands on the repression about to come down on his country following a fraudulent election would have to pretty low on our list.
And put us down for double that when it comes to “dickishness….”
* I don’t recommend that you actually do this, but if you doubt this, feel free to check out:
CROOKS AND LIARS
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation.
Danielle Ivory is a reporter and producer for the American News Project. She lives in Washington, D.C.